In much of the country, including Florida where many of us go in winter, counties are the basic unit of government. Police, fire, schools (and several other functions) are the responsibility of elected county officials.
That is not the case in Massachusetts. After years of mismanagement, the citizens of Massachusetts abolished government in 8 of our 14 counties. Barnstable County government survives, but doesn’t control services.
In our state, towns and cities are in charge of police, fire and education, even though towns have limited population and cannot provide these services as efficiently as areas with larger populations.
A prime example of inefficiency is the five (yes, five) fire departments in the town of Barnstable. 45,913 people have five fire departments: Five chiefs, five headquarters, five management staffs.
Over the years I’ve talked to people about this and they all think it makes no sense for Barnstable to have five fire departments. Nearby Falmouth, with more than 31,000 people, does fine with one. But everyone I talk to assumes that the people who work in those five departments would defeat any attempt at change.
Recently I got a different point of view from an employee of one of Barnstable’s fire departments. He was pretty sure that most of the employees of the five departments would be glad to be part of one bigger, more efficient department. Even the Chiefs he has talked to would be OK becoming Deputy Chiefs in a larger department.
He said that all Cape fire departments already cooperate with other departments in many areas, including training and coverage. He felt we could save more money and give better service at the same time by having one central Chief’s office for management, budgeting, grant writing and procurement.
And he wasn’t limiting his assertions to the five Barnstable departments. He felt that the whole county should be one department. It would eliminate redundant management and provide more funds for firemen and EMTs.
This is something Barnstable County government should study. How much money could we save by having one county-wide fire department? Would there be any improvement in services? How should the department be structured?
I think we should also look at the advantages and disadvantages of county-wide police services, education above sixth grade, and sewer systems. It’s possible we could get a lot more for less.